My grandmother would have hated Vessel & Vine.

Always a routine eater with a particular penchant for boiled meats and canned vegetables, Grandma Ross probably wouldn’t have had any idea what to make of chef/owner/proprietor Nikaline Iacono’s short, spice-propelled menu of organic proteins, foraged ingredients and local produce.

Take her terrific sweet potato “hummus” ($7) – a dense, sesame-sprinkled spread that she whizzes up with tahini, lemon juice and freckles of sumac she finds growing wild not far from the restaurant’s downtown Brunswick location. Scooped into an amber, Depression-glass dish and plated with cracker-thin slices of Standard Baking sourdough, the unconventional riff on the classic chickpea puree unspools threads of tartness in each bite.

Or the delightful Lacinato kale salad ($11), a teetering tower of nubbly greens and ribbons of maroon carrots from nearby Six River Farm. Glistening with maple-chile vinaigrette, the structure threatens to collapse at the first touch of your fork, sending quartered, maple-soy-pickled eggs tumbling down onto the plate.

My grandmother would have dismissed it all as “Wizard of Oz food,” her favorite way to reject anything edible that was beyond her ken. And she would have been partly right — the streamlined menu at The Vine can feel a little fantastical, with dishes and cocktails that seem like they must have come to Iacono in a dream.

Under many (perhaps most) chefs, this eccentricity might spin out of control, but Iacono understands her flavors. Perhaps more importantly, she harnesses that same dangerously wobbly gyroscope that powers the food and beverage menus and unleashes it to animate the other facets of her business: a (mostly natural) wine shop, cocktail-making and cooking classes, vintage clothing and quirky barware.

“I see lots of places that are very linear, very focused. That’s just not my personality. I have lots of interests and things I want to pursue. It’s just my world in here,” she said. “I don’t really think of it as a restaurant. I want it to be a bar that has retail and really good food that you can piece together a meal at. People always want you to have more entrees, but I can’t do that with my kitchen.”

Vessel & Vine owner Nikaline Iacono chats with guests from behind the bar. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

That’s no mere excuse. Step around the mirrored, feather-garlanded bar and you’ll discover that The Vine’s back-of-house is more dormitory than diner, with equipment that totals two pressure cookers, an induction burner, a miniature crockpot and a toaster oven. No flat-top, no flame, no fryer.

These are constraints that would make the most resourceful chef blanch. But somehow, Iacono makes it all work seamlessly. She even bakes in her toaster oven, plating up squares of Southern-style (read: not very sweet) cornbread alongside a New Year’s special to fill the “Comfort” slot on her menu: pressure-cooked pork with brothy black-eyed peas; delicate, smoky braised mustard greens and spinach leaves ($14). Nothing about this dish tips you off to the limitations of its creation.

“I find the idea of having all the ingredients and resources in the world to be overwhelming,” she said. “The way I like to create my food and drink is to have restrictions and parameters.”

Vessel & Vine bartender Marie Bradford mixes up cocktails. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

So much so that she finds ways to introduce them into her beverage menu, where a do-it-yourself cocktail called “The Golden Ratio” ($12) challenges imbibers to mix and match components to create 256 drink possibilities from a preselected group of 12 base spirits, vermouths/aromatized wines and amari (herbal liqueurs that Iacono is so fond of, she offers an entire course about how to deploy them in cocktails).

Slyly, The Golden Ratio also teaches customers about equilibrating sweetness with bitterness and alcohol, using the 1:1:1 ratio of the Negroni as a starting point. “It’s about understanding the classic principles, so that once you understand those rules, you’ll know how to break them,” Iacono said. “I want people to go home and play.”

At times, The Vine’s limitations ensnare the skeleton crew behind the scenes. On one recent visit, when there were just two staffers working (Iacono and a bartender), service lagged, leaving my two-top and the tables around me with empty water and wine glasses for long stretches.

I also wonder if the crush of 10-or-so new customers who suddenly overwhelmed the 30-something-seat dining room wasn’t partly responsible for a carelessly overgenerous dose of salty black bean sauce on the mineral, toaster-oven-baked oysters (three for $12).

Impressively, it was the evening’s only significant culinary misstep in a meal that yielded an unbelievably tender turmeric-spiced bread pudding, bathed in a pumpkin custard and topped with whipped cream goosed with a slug of Zirbenz Stone Pine liqueur ($8), as well as crisp, gremolata-topped “Fancy Toast” slathered with anchovy butter and sprinkled with teensy matchsticks of crunchy, winter-bitter Chioggia beet ($7).

My recent visit to The Vine also introduced me to one of my all-time favorite versions of dolma (rolled, ground-beef-stuffed cabbage leaves). Baked in a runny, aromatic sauce of sundried tomato and garlic, The Vine’s dolma ($8) are spiced with Iacono’s unique take on ras el hanout. Her reimagining of the Middle Eastern spice blend embroiders warming clove and paprika onto a scrim of rose petal, an inversion of the expected ras el hanout ratios, but one that seems to jolt the dish awake from a winter hibernation.

Grandma, if you’re reading from above, I have a confession. I love The Vine for all the reasons that you probably would have despised it. But knowing how much you secretly enjoyed a seasonal tipple (and Depression glass), I’ll toast to your memory with a cup of Iacono’s The Fanciest Egg Nog Ever ($11), a custardy, saffron-scented cocktail made with natural rum, Fernet Gancia, spruce syrup and sweet sherry – the sort of Wizard of Oz concoction that even you would have begrudgingly adored.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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